As most academics know, your own work and time are more important than anyone else’s. That truth is particularly important to bear in mind at academic conferences. This 11-point guide (you’re worth more than 10) explains how self-respecting selfish scholars should conduct themselves at such events.
1 Book your travel wisely
Don’t feel obliged to put yourself out to meet the start and finish times set by the organisers, which are rarely realistic. It’s likely that the most convenient travel arrangements will entail your arriving well after the registration period, which obviates the need for you to queue for your badge and ensures personalised service from front-desk staff. It’s also likely that you’ll have to leave early, but the final session of a conference is so poorly attended that it’s not worth staying for.
2 Keep hydrated
There will be an abundance of liquid refreshment available – make the most of it. This may require more frequent visits to the lavatory, but you can excuse yourself from sessions whenever necessary. Coffee breaks are never long enough, so take your time, even if it means being a few minutes late for the next session – schedules are only ever indicative.
3 Pick a good seat
Although you are likely to need to leave presentations more than once (see point 2), don’t feel obliged to occupy an inferior seat near the door – you’ve paid your fee (or your institution has), so you deserve a prime position. Ignore the protests of your colleagues as you slide past them, stepping on their feet and spilling their coffee – academics are notoriously sensitive. When you return, under no circumstances feel pressured into taking a different seat. You must be well placed for the Q&A session.
4 Make the most of your questions
Although it’s unlikely that any speaker is going to tell you anything you didn’t already know, the Q&A is a great opportunity for you to impress other delegates with your unique and discerning take on a subject. Always begin by thanking the speaker for a fascinating talk (courtesy costs nothing), then find a link to your own work, however tenuous. Skilled practitioners offer a lengthy peroration on their most recent research project or publication and then ask: “…and I wondered if you had any thoughts about that?”
5 Be selective
Most conferences will contain only a few relevant or interesting sessions, so make the most of your “down time” to get on with something more important. There are usually plenty of public spaces for you to do this, which have the advantage of being within sight or earshot of keynote or parallel sessions, so you can always slip in late if it looks like you’re missing out on something worthwhile.
Conference organisers seem perversely skilled at scheduling the few things that interest you across different parallel sessions, so be prepared to flit between them. Again, do not feel you need to take a seat by the door to minimise the impact of your exit, and neither should you enter the next session apologetically or quietly. Be assertive in taking your new seat, even if this means walking in front of a poorly positioned projector; if you’re lucky, you’ll catch the conclusion of the previous speaker’s presentation, which will enable you to ask a question (see point 4).
If you’re unlucky enough to find yourself in an irrelevant session, but for some reason feel obliged to stay (one of the speakers might be attractive, for example), use the time to check your emails – people will assume that your noisy typing is “note-taking”.
8 Share the benefits of your expertise
Not all academics are as adept at presenting as you are. If, during a presentation, you perceive some infelicity of expression or lack of precision in terminology, do interject with a query or clarification; although they may not say so, your colleagues will be grateful. You may even pre-empt some of the questions at the end (for which there will now be less time).
9 Take your time
When presenting your own paper, make sure to take more than the 15 or 20 minutes on offer. It is impossible for you to communicate the detail and complexity of your work in such an impoverished period, and extra time is always available for those with something significant to offer. If you are unlucky enough to have a particularly vigilant chairperson who insists that your time is up, simply smile charmingly and promise to finish in a minute. This can very easily be extended to three, then five, and so on. Alternatively, avoid eye contact with anyone in the room (see point 10).
10 Read, don’t ‘speak’
When presenting, remember that you are giving an academic paper, not a speech at a wedding. Your audience expects depth and rigour, so read, verbatim, from your written paper. Since you spent considerable time crafting it, don’t deviate from it, even at the risk of occasionally appearing unfamiliar with your own writing – or, indeed, any form of animated human communication.
11 Remember why you’re there
Your institution has invested heavily in you (paying your travel, accommodation and conference fee) because you’re worth it. When you have presented, your work is done and you deserve to indulge in all of the pleasures of travel. Cultural enrichment is not merely your right, it’s an obligation – no one could seriously expect you to waste all your time in a conference venue, and, after all, your partner has come along for a mini-break.
Mark Readman is a principal academic in media education at Bournemouth University.